The Very Important Sennheiser HD 580, HD 600, and HD 650
Editors Note: These headphones have an interesting history for headphone enthusiasts, but if you're here just to read a review of these headphones, you can safely skip to the next page.
History - They Always Take You for Granted in Your Home Town
There's a rare moment in the life of a headphone fanatic when you put on a pair of headphones and go, "WOW! I never knew it could be this good." Revolutionary, not evolutionary. It's happened to me maybe a half dozen times. The first time was with the Sennheiser HD 580. I wanted to tell every headphone enthusiast I knew about the HD 580...but there was barely any internet back then, and no such thing as the headphone hobby. I emailed the handful of people I knew who would be interested, and just started telling people about them when the phone rang at HeadRoom.
By the time the headphone hobby started with Chu Moy and the Headwize forum in 1998, the HD 580 was well established, and HD 600 was just becoming available. They were the de-facto standard to which all other headphones were measured...but because they pre-dated the hobby, they were never the flavor of the month, they never received a love of their own, they were never the new and shiny thing to lust over. They were always just there. And they did have one little problem...which, in my view, got blown out of proportion.
The Sennheiser Veil and Other Issues
In a time when overly detailed headphones built by Grado, Audio Technica, and Stax pre-Omega were considered the norm among headphone enthusiasts, the HD 600 was heard as polite...too polite for ears used to the up-front treble and poor bass response of high-end cans at the time. And so the relentless damning began, gently bludgeoning the HD 600 away from it's first place position at every opportunity with the fluffy club curse: "The Sennheiser Veil."
This berating went on so vehemently for so long that it even got it's own smiley at Head-Fi. I'll let Jude's words from a recent post tell the story:
Years ago on Head-Fi, one of the biggest debates you'd see on these forums was the debate over whether or not the HD 600/650 was veiled. Some thought it was, others (like me) felt differently. This argument would pop up in any number of discussions rather frequently (as, for years, the HD600 and HD650 were the most discussed headphones here), sometimes steering threads off-topic.
The discussion of it got so old and tired, that, as the old saying goes, it was like beating a dead horse.
You're looking at the beating of the Sennheiser veil horse.
(I don't recall who created this emoticon, but it was many years ago.)
Frankly I'm with Jude, I've never heard it that way either. Polite? Yes. Laid back? Sure. Slightly lacking in the airy sound of very good top end response? Okay. But not veiled...at least not the HD 600. I do think the HD 650 might be worthy of the moniker though.
And that brings up another issue: As the product evolved from 580 to 600 to 650, hobbyists were prone to nitpicking each step along the way...and not without merit. First, the HD 580 had a problem: The small springs that are used as contacts for the cables connection to the ear were too soft and malleable. Over time, the spring would stretch a the coil into which in the contact pins were inserted resulting in an intermittent connection. People often thought their cable was going bad, but I've never seen that to be the case. When the HD 600 appeared first as the HD 580 Jubilee 50th Anniversary Edition, and then subsequently as the HD 600, this problem had not been addressed. Enthusiasts were enthusiastically ired by the oversight. Fortunately, new springs were developed, and Sennheiser did offer replacements free of charge for some time thereafter. People also griped about the HD 600 being significantly more expensive than the HD 580.
When the HD 650 came out, the tumult began again. The 650 while a bit more refined sounding, seemed even warmer than the HD 600, solidifying---somewhat correctly this time, IMO---the myth of the Sennheiser veil. And the price hike over the HD 600 was again criticized.
Lastly, and this one is a bit too complicated for me too keep up with, the headphones seemed to be going through a number of internal changes in a somewhat random manner---at least from the viewpoint of enthusiasts. The acoustic damping material over the driver's baffle plate seemed to change willy nilly. I did notice, in the period after the fire in the Ireland plant where the HD 600/650 was built, a number of small changes. I won't speculate on what was going on, but the fire coupled with normal manufacturer in-line engineering changes has certainly kept enthusiasts guessing at what a standard 600 and 650 really looked like...even up to the present day.
What a Difference a Decade Makes
It took a decade or more, but eventually the hobbyists tired of their flaming fan-dance around the HD 580/600/650, and things settled down quite a bit. New headphones have come and gone, but this family of headphones have remained securely, but quietly, well positioned in the pantheon of audiophile headphones. An odd thing has been happening lately though, it seems to me enthusiasts have increasingly begun to turn their attention back to the HD 600/650, and have begun rediscovering it as a great headphone.
One possible reason for the gradual resurgence of interest is more and more headphone geeks getting into tube amps. While most headphone makers are striving to build better sounding cans at lower impedance and higher efficiency to be easily driven from portable players and smartphones, the HD 600/650 has remained a 300 Ohm headphone. This high impedance delivers a better damping factor with the higher output impedance of most tube amplifiers, and especially with OTL (Output Transformer-Less) tube amps (Bottlehead Crack and Woo Audio WA3, for example). However, I don't think this fully accounts for the continued rise of interest.
Fondness and Contempt
Maybe I'm making too big a deal of this, but human nature is human nature. We've all heard the sayings: "familiarity breeds contempt" and "absence makes the heart grow fonder." The HD 600 has been with us for a long time...we're very familiar with it. I know I often take them for granted; I know when I reach for them I'm not expecting the excitement of something new. At some level I'm bored with them. Stupid human.
When I put them on to listen though, I'm suddenly struck with the need to face my prejudice. I'm swept away with the music. Simply put, this is one of the world's best headphones. I think we've always known that; it's just taken us a long time to allow ourselves to feel it.
Enough with the social studies, on the the review proper...